Impact of multilingualism on cognition

Advantages of multilingualism in cognition

At our international school in Alicante we believe that multilingualism, or the ability to speak and understand several languages, has a significant impact on human cognition. The acquisition and use of multiple languages involves complex cognitive processes that can affect the way we think, perceive and process information. Here are some highlights of the impact of multilingualism on cognition:

  1. Improved cognitive skills: learning and using multiple languages involves complex cognitive processes, which strengthens skills such as memory, attention, reasoning and problem solving. Multilingual individuals often perform better on tasks that require cognitive flexibility.
  2. Increased ability to think flexibly: Multilingualism fosters the ability to switch between different language systems and grammatical structures. This can lead to a greater ability to think flexibly, adapt to new situations and find creative solutions.
  3. Improved attention span and concentration: Multilingual speakers develop skills in filtering and managing information in multiple languages. This can result in an increased ability to concentrate on specific tasks and to resist distractions.
  4. Increased ability to solve linguistic problems: Multilingual individuals have experience in handling different grammatical rules, vocabularies and linguistic structures. This can lead to a greater ability to solve linguistic problems and understand abstract concepts.
  5. Increased cultural and social sensitivity: Multilingualism involves learning different languages and often also involves exposure to different cultures and perspectives. This can lead to greater cultural and social sensitivity, and better understanding and empathy towards people from different linguistic and cultural backgrounds.

What do studies say about multilingualism in cognition?

Although there is now sufficient literature to support the multiple benefits of learning different languages regardless of one’s stage of life, there is still debate about the effects of bilingualism, especially at an early age. Although there is unanimous agreement (Bialystok, 2015) on the empirical evidence of the advantages (cognitive plasticity), there is still debate about two possible disadvantages: that bilinguals acquire language more slowly and have less vocabulary than monolinguals, and that they mix languages and become confused.

However, recent studies based on non-invasive neuroimaging techniques in children aged 0-3 years not only support the different brain organisation of multilingual people but indicate that in the first case the first sounds and words are uttered at the same time in both and the number of words used is the same or higher in bilinguals without statistically significant differences; while in the second case the data support that multilinguals quickly anticipate and adapt to the language used by the person they are interacting with and when they do not know a word or do not remember it in one language they use a synonym in another language, which is interpreted as a sign of linguistic sophistication, and therefore of intelligence, not confusion.

Moreover, evidence-based research also reports that this different brain organisation in bilingual people may also protect against neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, not by preventing the disease if it should appear but by slowing its onset or severity (Devi, 2020; Duñabeitia 2022).

Therefore, it seems that bilingualism and early exposure to several languages natively, not only results in a better command of languages compared to monolinguals, but goes further and implies better cognitive skills to cope with other tasks since language shapes our brain and therefore our thinking and the functioning of our body.